This is about my mindset when I first embarked on my long journey living with a chronic mental illness: I wanted to “fix myself.” Fixing myself was this Utopian dream of “being normal” or “myself again,” but forever. Never relapsing, no medicine, and no “weird” self-care necessary. Just “normal.” Nearly 2 decades later, I have found that while “fixing one’s self” might feel like a good recovery goal, it isn’t. It probably hurts more than helps.
First, though, I think the origins of this desire to fix one’s self comes from a misunderstanding about what causes mental illness. There’s something fundamentally different about diagnosing most “mental” illnesses from many “physical” illnesses. When you’re diagnosed with the flu, it reflects the cause: a virus has invaded your body. To fix yourself is a matter of fixing that cause. But when you’re diagnosed with depression, it reflects the symptoms: you feel down, suicidal, lack of energy, low appetite, etc. What exactly should you “fix?”
The individual experience of mental illness is psychological, but the causes are less clear. While there’s obviously a connection between our subjective experience, our physical brains and bodies, and our environment, I don’t think we understand enough to say how it works. We know a bit about why populations (groups of people) get mental illnesses, but we rarely know why you, an individual, get a mental illness. I’ll end up making another post explaining this population versus individual thing later. There’s usually some instigating causes, definitely: a family member passing away, or experiencing abuse, or being chronically stressed by work for too long. And there are people who experience depression once in their lifetime and never again. But for people with chronic mental illnesses, it’s not always that clear what is causing it.
I make a big deal out of this because if the causes can be unclear, the solutions are also not obvious. I spent years assuming I could “fix myself,” and that mindset ended up becoming part of the problem. I believed that what I felt and thought had to make sense, there had to be reasons why I felt awful, and if I addressed those reasons, I’d “get better.” Self-improvement is great, but it didn’t “fix me.”
Assuming that you should be able to fix yourself is a one-way ride to self-defeat. Years passed, and I triumphed over most of the things I thought were wrong with me, that I assumed caused my depression. I did feel a bit better sometimes, but mostly, I still felt awful. I still wanted to die. I wanted to hurt myself, to punish myself for being weak, unworthy, and shameful. I thought it must be my fault. I must not be trying hard enough. I must not be good enough yet.
It took more years for me to understand the “fix yourself” mindset was hurting me, and even longer to accept it. Accepting that I couldn’t “fix myself” felt a lot like giving up, like failure. Avoiding this acceptance is why I kept going off medication (and eventually relapsing). I think I was 22 or 23 when I finally accepted it: working through my mental illness isn’t a finish-line to cross; it’s the whole journey.
Acceptance was still terrifying, honestly. Who wants to be the mentally ill person? How many good stereotypes are there about us? I avoided dating for years because I thought I needed to “get better” first. Accepting that I wasn’t going to “get better” in that sense was hard. It was so natural to believe things cause my feelings, so if I fix things, I will fix my feelings. But no. I am mentally ill. The thing that’s wrong is my feelings. I didn’t do anything wrong. I wasn’t making big mistakes. There wasn’t one or two things I could fix. I felt bad, but nothing actually was bad.
I feel bad, but nothing actually is bad, and that’s okay. It’s alright to feel things that don’t make sense. It’s okay that I get the feeling people are listening to my thoughts, even though that doesn’t make any sense. That’s just what it’s like to be me sometimes. That’s why I take medicine. That’s why I should take care of myself the best I can. I can’t stop being me, but I can reduce the severity of my symptoms. I can shorten how long they last. I can choose to be more comfortable with my discomfort instead of making it worse by blaming myself.
Improve yourself for the sake of improving, not because you want to “be fixed.” At least, that’s what I learned. I only have my own experience and perspective to offer. It also follows the whole SMART goals thing. “Being fixed” or “better” is not specific, not measurable, probably unattainable, and I doubt it really is time-bound (fix by when? how long? nothing lasts forever). An example of a SMARTer goal: when I struggled with self-harm, I made a goal that any time I felt like hurting myself, I’d do 5 push-ups. Sometimes I’d end up doing a lot, but the physical activity distracted me sometimes. That was a good goal.